First Ladies and Their Cattleyas- Melania Trump

Melania Knauss Trump is the wife of the 45th United States President. Prior to marrying Donald J. Trump in 2005, she was a successful model working with major fashion houses in Milan and Paris and later appearing on the covers of dozens of magazines including Vogue, Vanity Fair, and Glamour. She also had her own watch and jewelry line.

The former Melanija Knavs was born in Slovenia (formerly Yugoslavia) where her mother was a fashion designer. She moved to New York City in 1996 and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2006. Over the years, she has been active in the American Red Cross as well as the American Heart Association.

In her role as First Lady, Mrs. Trump focuses on the many issues affecting children. She recently launched BE BEST – an awareness campaign that encourages wellness, offsets the negative effects of social media, and reduces opioid abuse.

One of the benefits of being associated with the project, First Ladies and their Cattleyas, is that everyone goes out of their way to help the cause. No sooner had Mr. Trump been elected, than clients began offering their connections in Washington and a streamlined way to give the new First Lady her namesake orchid.

In early 2018, one of the seedlings received a prestigious flower quality award from the American Orchid Society. The Highly Commended Certificate or HCC/AOS designation moved the cattleya into an exclusive club of honored first lady hybrids. Only those namesakes of Bess Truman, Betty Ford, Nancy Reagan, Hillary Clinton, and Laura Bush have been given similar accolades.

The fall of 2018 brought fresh political momentum to the project when our local Virginia congressman got involved. House member Dave Brat was so impressed with the Trump orchid that he sent a staffer to the White House with a vase of cut flowers along with an impassioned plea to formally accept them.

Shortly thereafter, former First Lady Laura Bush called Mrs. Trump  to encourage the orchid presentation after hearing a garden club lecture, “First Ladies and their Cattleyas,” given by the author. Mrs. Bush is quite familiar with orchids having accepted her own namesake in 2005 at the United States Botanic Garden. Just before congress was scheduled to take its winter break, we received an email from the Office of the First Lady.

The timing was perfect because there were at least four varieties in bud that would be fully open after the New Year and she could choose her favorite. The colors ran the gamut and represented the natural variation in seed grown plants.

However, no sooner had we responded to the White House than the government shut down for the next 33 days and, with it, our hopes of presenting the orchids. The emails stopped and one by one, the flowers folded until there were none left.

Then, one March afternoon, we had an interesting visitor at the greenhouse. He was a serious orchid hobbyist from out of town and was interested in Bulbophyllums and other unusual genera. In passing, he mentioned that he was also the personal chef of the President’s daughter, Ivanka Trump and her husband Jarad Kushner.

Stephen Kotarski had been catering for the Trump family in New Jersey for a decade before moving to the District of Colombia. Upon hearing of our project, he immediately offered to assist and took two spring-blooming varieties of Melania Trump’s hybrid back to Washington where they were warmly greeted.

An official date was set for the presentation but it was nearly two weeks away and we wondered whether the flowers would still look fresh for the photograph. In the interim, the National Park Service was given the task of caring for the delicate orchids in their secret offsite greenhouse facility half an hour away. It was unseasonably warm during this period as the delicate cattleyas were shuttled back and forth through safety check points. The day before the scheduled event, one of the two plants folded.

On a Tuesday morning in early April, history was made. First Lady Melania Trump sat down in the Green Room of the White House and was photographed with her namesake hybrid. The seedling that made the arduous journey was the same plant that had been awarded by the American Orchid Society the previous year – variety ‘First Lady.’

The next day, I was summoned to pick up the plants from the White House grounds. The security was intense as I entered through the E Street gate and drove down East Executive Avenue. Massive barricades opened and closed and a dozen armed guards looked me over.

The gardens overlooking the east wing were lovely with perfectly manicured hedges and spring plantings of yellow tulips and blue pansies. Brick walkways led visitors around and pink dogwoods dotted the landscape. The White House, itself, is a formidable structure and I was honored to be in its presence.

Per Mrs. Trump’s request, the cattleya that she was photographed with was taken across the street and donated immediately to the United States Botanic Garden which serves as a repository for the First Lady orchid collection. Since 1929, the wives of fifteen consecutive Presidents have been honored with namesake cattleyas and most of the hybrids are still in existence today. The public can see these historical plants when the USBG and the Smithsonian Gardens co-host an annual orchid show in downtown Washington, D.C. from February to April.

Rlc Melania Trump is the most complex of all the first lady hybrids with 10 generations of breeding. In general terms, the cross combines a Cattleya Bow Bells influenced big white with a free-spirited art-shade Rhyncholaeliocattleya Chia Lin (Oconee x Maitland).

One parent of Rhyncholaeliocattleya Melania Trump is Cattleya Bold Swan (Old Whitey x Swan Lake). This lovely white hybrid has a lengthy ancestry and relies heavily on three of the work horses of the cut flower era - C mossiae, C gaskelliana, and C trianaei. Together, they provide big round flowers and exceptional vigor.

The legendary C Bow Bells is a grandparent on both sides of the lineage. It has been nearly 75 years, almost the length of a human lifetime, since a Cattleya hybrid named Bow Bells burst upon the orchid stage. The year was 1945 and the stage was the September meeting of the Trustees of the American Orchid Society. At the meeting, Clint McDade of Rivermont Orchids exhibited five plants of a new white cattleya hybrid called Bow Bells that had such outstanding flowers that one was awarded a First Class Certificate and the whole group received a rare Silver Medal of Excellence. Amazingly, four of the five plants were seedlings flowering for the first time.

The next appearance of C. Bow Bells was at the 1948 Miami Orchid Show where two more plants received First Class Certificates. Such accolades were unprecedented, and in one brief moment in the long history of cattleyas, this fragile flower had revolutionized the quality of white cattleya hybrids. It had raised it to the rarefied level of near-perfection by all the judging standards and C. Bow Bells would go on to become one of the most awarded hybrids in orchid history.

Cattleya Bow Bells was a product of the breeding program of the British orchid company Black & Flory who gave it its name and registered it with the Royal Horticultural Society in April 1945. Black & Flory was known for breeding fine cattleya hybrids and Clint McDade had purchased a large number of C. Bow Bells seedlings before any of them had flowered. When they began blooming in his greenhouses on Signal Mountain, Tennessee, he found he was sitting on a gold mine. McDade later described C. Bow Bells as “a botanical phenomenon among orchid plants.” He said, “All plants grown from this one seed pod are strikingly similar in having all the superior qualities desired in orchids. The plant itself is noted for its vigor and consequently is less difficult than most plants to grow. The flowers have all the desirable qualities of a fine orchid. The wide petals and sepals have good form and carriage and the large wide lip has a ruffled edge.”

In addition to C Bow Bells, we find such fine stud plants as C Ethyl Bishop (1945), C Empress Bells (1952), and C Vesper Bells (1958) in the lineage of C Bold Swan. Vesper Bells carries genes of the tall growing species, C loddigesii, which tend to impart flatter, waxy flowers.

The other parent of Blc Melania Trump is the 1980’s reddish stud, Blc Chia Lin (Oconee x Maitland). Over the years, there have been a handful of AOS awards for this hybrid and the colors range from ruby red to red violet to fuchsia. It’s truly a beautiful flower and few, if any, big reds today are an improvement.

As a breeder plant, Blc Chia Lin is wildly unpredictable given its colorful lineage that comprises sixteen species. Most influential is the naturally occurring yellow, C dowiana, which is always the prized plant in anyone’s collection despite its reputation as being tricky to grow (Experts recommend giving C dowiana warm nights, no cooler than 65 deg F). We also find such unlikely cattleyas as L tenebrosa and C bicolor along with Epidendrum cinnabarinum – hardly the standards of big round flowers.

With so many generations of dissimilar plant combinations, it’s hard to get a handle on the inner workings. The Oconee parent, from 1976, is heavy on dark purple breeding beginning with the earliest of primary hybrids, Lc Callistoglossa (L purpurata x C warscewiczii) from 1882 as well as the dark form of C Fabia (dowiana x labiata) from 1894. Experience has shown that breeding with C dowiana tends to darken the offspring of other purples.

The Maitland parent is also from the 70’s and is not a particularly well-shaped yellow. The petals are narrow and fall forward but, variety ‘Miles’ HCC/AOS, which is named after the originator, has intense yellow color that can partly be attributed to the 1904 primary hybrid, C Triumphans (dowiana x rex).

Early breeders were enamored with C dowiana until they found out that, it didn’t produce hybrids that were yellow. The pigment in its sepals and petals was so genetically recessive that it disappeared entirely when bred with any other large flowered cattleya. It wasn’t until a strange new cattleya species was imported from the jungles of Peru in 1890 that C dowiana finally produced a yellow-petal large flowered hybrid. The secret ingredient that made everything work was Cattleya rex – a blossom whose creamy appearance resembled pale lemon overlaid with white.

Cattleya rex had been one of the most elusive species in the history of orchid collecting, and it was a wonder that it ever made it to Europe. It had been previously seen in the wild by the well known explorer Jean Linden when, as a young man in the 20’s, he was traveling through South America for the Belgian government in the 1840’s. It was seen again, 30 years later, by the orchid collector Gustav Wallis. In Linden’s case, he was just surveying the plant life of Peru and Ecuador and was not in a position to bring back many epiphytes. Wallis, on the other hand, was in the business of gathering wild plants but found it impossible to extract the C rex specimens from the tops of the 70 foot tall trees and transport them alive through the dense jungle to a suitable port.   

For years, other explorers tried to coax C rex out of the jungle, but all were unable to bring even one healthy plant back to Europe and the horticultural world. The biggest obstacle was the isolated rainforest area where C rex was endemic.

It wasn’t until after a carefully planned effort by experienced plant collector Eric Bungeroth that a small number of C rex finally arrived in Liverpool, England in November, 1890. The orchids that lived were sold to Jean Linden’s company L’Horticulture Internationale where a client named Charles Maron was the first to bloom a plant. He would later use C rex in hybridizing and crossed it with C dowiana to produce the primary hybrid Cattleya Triumphans.

Other exciting early hybrids found in Maitland include the yellow C Prince John (dowiana x Hardyana) from 1913 which produces deeply colored magenta lips and Bc Heatonensis (B digbyana x C Hardyana) from 1902 which offers Maitland a touch of frilly lip.     

The Trump cross was named by Chadwick’s and bred by Michael Sinn of Canaima Orchids in Atlanta, Georgia. Mr. Sinn is a world class hybridizer who is often sold out years before his seedlings bloom. He is originally from Venezuela and earned a degree in civil engineering there. But his true love is orchids. “When my friends were going to the beach, I was going to the jungle looking for plants,” he says.

The first Trump seedlings to bloom at Chadwick’s produced hues rarely seen in cattleyas - blush, apricot, burgundy, and rust. Later, some traditional colors such as pink and purple came along. The one trait that was consistent throughout was the vigor of the plants which all had robust leaves and strong inflorescences.

The flowers are medium sized and they appear mostly in the fall and winter. Fortunately, there are a few spring bloomers as these were the plants that were sent to the White House.

What will be remembered about Mrs. Trump’s namesake cattleya is the unpredictability in the seedlings. While nearly all previous First Lady hybrids are white, purple or a combination of the two, Blc Melania Trump can be found in a rainbow of colors.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018 - 10:00